Black Country, New Road’s sophomore album, ‘Ants From Up There’, is an astonishingly rich and emotional ride of soaring orchestral and baroque pop and poetic stories that come from a gentle yet deeply-wounded soul. 

Almost a year ago to the day, Black Country, New Road opened the doors to their dark and twisted world of post-punk, art-rock, and art-punk and Isaac Wood’s surrealist-style songwriting with For the First Time. The LP’s pure genius and inventiveness landed it on several “Best of” lists, including our own. But instead of resting on the laurels of their achievements, the then-septet went immediately back to work on album number two. No one would blame the London-based collective if they opted to follow the formula of what made For the First Time extraordinary, but BC,NR have opted to further astonish, showing there is no limitation to their artistry. With Ants From Up There, they deliver their second consecutive masterpiece and set the bar for every other album to come this year. 

The band traverse the swirling currents of orchestral and baroque pop, art-rock, and jazz on their sophomore effort. However, Ants From Up There does share four things in common with For the First Time – it’s full of surprising twists, the orchestration is masterful, Wood’s songwriting is peerless, and the whole album is characterized by contrasts. The jaunty “Good Will Hunting” exemplifies BC,NR’s dichotomous method. As a playful melody quaintly hums in the background, Wood, with Tyler Wade providing backing vocals, assumes the identity of man desperately trying to hold on to the past. He shares his fears of growing older, of possibly losing his wife to an accident, and his genius daughters forgetting he exists. 

“I’m tryna find something to hold on to
Never text me nothing
But she wants to tell me
She’s not that hard to find
And message me if you change your mind
Darling, I’ll keep fine”

“Haldern”, conversely, is mournful and desperate, yet it is a love song. As Lewis Evans’ sax flutters around May Kershaw’s piano and Georgia Ellery’s quick violin strikes, Wood reveals how one person brought light into his harrowing world. He agonizingly proclaims, You are the only one I’ve known / Who broke the world so quietly.” Despite their once blossoming relationship, she refuses to marry him. Wood poetically describes the moment, We formed a ring around your home / To stop your body leaving / But you burned the final question then”. Even on the eerily titled “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”, Wood continues to live in memory and how the other person was always there even when he had a cooking accident (although the reference could be how love is like a burning fire).

“Show me the place where he inserted the blade
I’ll praise the Lord, burn my house
I get lost, I freak out
You come home and hold me tight
As if it never happened at all”

On “Concorde”, the band deliver the heartbreak of all heartbreak songs. A playfulness hums at first with the delicate drumming and serene melody. Even the chorus feels like a singalong, as the band joins Wood to sing, And you, like Concorde / I came, a gentle hill racer / I was breathless upon еvery mountain / Just to look for your light”. The image is Wes Anderson-like with Wood’s former partner jetting away from him while he chases after her in his modest vehicle. For endless days, he dreams of her. As the song builds to its cathartic ending, Wood shares words that, like many of Claude Monet’s paintings, look prophetic now.

“And I laid dead or twitching for most of the night
But I know that you’ll be there
The sandman inside
And I’ll come to like a child
Concorde and I die free this time”

BC,NR do find inspiration in the small things. The amusing and lighthearted baroque-pop delight, “Chaos Space Marine”, is an ode to the video game Warhammer. “In time, you will find / These things take you”, Wood shares how a hobby becomes an obsession. But love is still the biggest obsession. On the haunting and yearning Bread Song”, the band fixate on the person next to them, wondering what they are thinking. Wondering if there is room in their home for them. The answer comes during the track’s wistful ending.

“Oh, darling I
I never felt the crumbs until you said
‘This place is not for any man
Nor particles of bread'”

Black Country, New Road take a step back from love’s torment to get introspective on “Snow Globes”. Post-rock, art-rock, and and orchestral pop converge on this nine-plus minute, turbulent epic. Its melancholic opener captivates, feeling like a beautiful dream about to commence. The breeziness, however, ends during the emotionally-charged, chaotic climax. As the drums rattle in a formless state around the pensive and mournful violin, Woods’ baritone hollers through the noise, screaming at a friend who is slowly fading out of sight. The story about Henry and how his faith betrayed him is beyond startling.

“That’s a funny looking shrine on your bedroom wall
Well I’m sorry Henry
He doesn’t look anything like Jesus at all
Your friend, the one that you loved

Did you keep him on your side?
Did you ever get to ask what on Earth he meant by
‘Might take some time to learn how to use these bodies right
But it is for this that God has gave us both the night’”

The album comes to a conclusion with “Basketball Shoes”, which captures the complexities and multiple stories of Ants From Up There in over 12 minutes and 30 seconds. Following the three-plus minute musical interlude, Wood references “Concorde”, childhood memories, “the clamp” that has been mentioned in previous songs, and the consequence of love and infatuation. More importantly, the song’s final lyrics, “All I’ve been forms the drone, we sing the rest / Oh, your generous loan to me, your crippling interest”, are Wood’s parting. He cryptically thanks everyone for listening and investing the time to hear his stories, pain, and uncertainty. Just three days before Ants From Up There‘s release, Wood announced his departure from the band, but not before leaving his mark. Not before helping this great young outfit release another remarkable masterpiece.

Black Country, New Road are Luke Mark (guitar), Tyler Hyde (bass), May Kershaw (keys), Lewis Evans (sax), Georgia Ellery (violin), and Charlie Wayne (drums) with Isaac Wood (vocals/guitar). The sextet will continue to perform together, sharing the songwriting duties from now on. In the meantime, the band with Wood’s Ants From Up There is out on Ninja Tune. It can be obtained or streamed at these links, at the label‘s store, or on Bandcamp.

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